Wine marketeers and PRs craft and communicate the stories which move grapes from the winery to the consumer’s glass. In the UK, the people who do this important job are predominantly female, who are predominantly working in small teams or as freelancers. We wanted to champion these fellow small teams and the networks of freelancers who are working harder than ever behind the scenes to keep the cogs of the wine industry whirring. We hope you enjoy this series of interviews.
We greatly enjoyed our video chat with Clare Malec, owner and director of Island Media. Clare is the woman-behind-the-curtain responsible for some the UK’s best loved and most established wine events, including Three Wine Men and the Decanter Wine Awards. Clare’s sought-after strategic brain was also behind the launch of the #supportyourlocalmerchant campaign. Remaining remarkably calm for a woman who’s juggling a job which has been rewritten by COVID-19 with homeschooling three children, we talked about global warming, kindness and taking a moment to breathe.
You work on both consumer events, and content-led publishing projects – that must give you an interesting perspective on the challenges and opportunities of the current situation?
Tasting events absolutely stopped overnight and we’ve got no idea when they’ll be able to start running again – or if they’ll be able to start running again in the format we all know. A pandemic and open spittoons do not make great bedfellows. But I do think that the period we’re all living through has given everyone a chance to step back and really consider if we’re doing things in the best possible way.
Three Wine Men has been particulary hard hit. With winemakers flying in from all over the world and people travelling from across the country to the events, we made the hard call to cancel all events for the first half of the year before lockdown was even announced. It immediately meant no income but still lots of overheads.
With Oz Clarke, Tim Atkin MW and Olly Smith as well as Susy Atkins and Tom Surgey we have the media power of the UK’s most high-profile and influential wine experts. We decided we wanted to use that influence in a positive way, so we poured all our energy into a campaign to #supportyourlocalmerchant, listing the local wine merchants who were still delivering. We had 300 companies contact us to be listed in the first week alone which galvanised us to take it further. Another part of the industry which has been particularly hard hit is the country’s wineries. A lot of them are very very young companies who are also sitting on lots of stock from the past few fantastic vintages. So we extended #supportyourlocalmerchant to include #supportyourlocalwinery. With Oz Clarke, Tim Atkin MW and Olly Smith as well as Susy Atkins and Tom Surgey we have the media power of the UK’s most high-profile and influential wine experts.
Working on the Decanter Retailer Awards we have to be very empathetic to retailers out there who have a lot of employees in furlough and therefore their teams are depleted and working flat out. It was decided that all revenue from the awards will go to The Drinks Trust this year to help those in need in the trade, that we’d extend the deadline and judges would understand if entries were not as comprehensive as normal. And of course – no awards event but a virtual award ceremony instead.
The wine business is very focussed on IRL experience as marketing tool – how are you advising your clients to adapt to and plan for the next few months?
Whilst the majority of the retail market is suffering, wine sales are soaring at the moment. But what’s really heartening from my perspective is the thirst for wine knowledge. We have seen a massive proliferation of virtual tastings and they range from the amazing to the very average.
The independent merchants, the winemakers and the wine influencers, for want of a better word, are all coming together to create really stimulating online activity. I think it’s really exciting that through these platforms we’re able to engage with a large global audience and get them really interested in wine. Connecting online is a fantastic way to communicate directly and in real time with customers and to reach a wide audience. We can now bring together lots of the influencers with winemakers from wherever they are in the world – diary coordinating has historically been a big challenge but of course, in lockdown it’s got a lot easier!
A great example is what 67 Pall Mall have been doing. Their digital tastings and events are dynamic and professional – not to mention they were incredibly quick off the mark. I do think that this professionalism is the key point. Of course, we’re all on a steep learning curve (my 12 year old son is Island Media’s resident tech expert!), but what will endure in terms of digital wine content beyond this pandemic is the really good presenters who combine their knowledge with charisma.
However, we must not underestimate the human interaction and social experience that wine brings – whether that is sitting around a table with family or friends, in the vineyard with the winemaker or at a trade tasting. I am confident we will get back to a point where events and tastings are in demand again – though maybe in a slightly different format.
And how are you all doing as a team?
Everyone has their own particular circumstances and some are finding lockdown easier than others.
I work with a very talented team at Island Media who each have their own skill sets. It means we are very nimble team who can respond to the client’s needs but we are all a team of freelancers as the work we do by its very nature is project work. So when the work stops so does the income. I am very aware that there’s no possibility of furlough so am constantly searching out freelance work for each of them where I can.
For example, Ali is not only a brilliant event coordinator, she is also a skilled web designer. She has taken this time to build a fantastic new website for Island Media and we promoted this and she has now picked up work building other company websites and e-newsletters on a freelance basis
We will come through this crisis at some point – things may look very different on the other side but we all need to look after each other now.
What advice and adaptations would you offer to different sectors and channels of the wine trade in how to come through this situation?
Go the extra mile.
Everyone is having a difficult time, so I think now more than ever is time to look after each other. A little bit of kindness at the moment goes a long way and your suppliers, clients and customers will never forget the time you went the extra mile for them.
A great example is RHS Lindley Hall. I use them regularly for events, and their empathy and helpfulness at this time is something I’ll never forget. They deal with all sorts of clients hosting events there but they’ve been especially understanding of the particular challenges facing the wine trade when it comes to events because you have cross contamination on so many different levels. I will definitely reward them with my loyalty in future and the wine trade is a small place and word spreads.
If we all work together to help each other now we will benefit from those strong relationships in future.
How are you planning for the future? Are you planning for the future?
Absolutely – it is essential to plan now and this has been a real time for reflection and looking at the industry from all angles. Normally at this time of year I’m going hell for leather planning all of our Christmas events. But now, I’ve been able to step back on behalf of all of my clients and do some proper strategic thinking. So much of my ‘normal’ life is firefighting, this whole period has given me time I never normally have.
We are stepping into the unknown now and have little idea of how the world will have to adapt with COVID. However, what we do know is that the world is facing huge economic challenges ahead which will affect every industry.
With all my clients my mission is always to try and get their budgets to work as hard as possible for them and this will be essential now more than ever. In fact, if they are not having to travel these budgets can be used effectively to reach a wide audience.
What is making you hopeful right now?
I can’t get enough of the good news stories about what lockdown is doing positively for the planet. I love the stories about goats coming down off the mountains in Wales and fish swimming in the suddenly clear canals in Venice. It’s amazing how nature has responded so quickly; how the air has instantly becoming cleaner since people are not driving or flying.
It should be of special interest to all in the wine industry as global warming is a global concern for winemakers. Our trade needs global warming to slow down drastically. Just before lockdown, I hosted a fascinating working breakfast book launch for Fiona Morrison MW at 67 Pall Mall for her book ’10 Great Wine Families of Europe’. As part of one of the greatest Bordeaux winemaking families [the Thienponts] she talked about legacy and how worried they are about climate change what they will hand over to the next generation.
Hopefully, by using Zoom and all the other communication technology, this time in lockdown will make everyone, whether personally or professionally, reassess their travel and general consumption needs.
Has anything special been in your glass recently?
Last Friday, 22nd May I supported #SpectacularSouthAfrica by opening Blank Bottle’s Moment on Silence 2018 which I got my my friend Robin at SWIG. South Africa’s wine trade has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, with the government’s export restrictions and a temporary ban on alcohol sales domestically too. It was great to see everyone come together to show their support. Not to mention, after another week of juggling work with home schooling three children I desperately needed a moment of silence myself!